Well before the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in Oklahoma became infamous for videotaped racist chants, SAE chapters in California were involved in numerous serious incidents, including a hazing death, the closing of two houses and disciplinary sanctions for drinking and conduct problems.
California had 18 chapters in 2010; since then, 14 of them faced discipline or punishment from their schools or the national headquarters for rules or conduct violations, often involving alcohol, according to fraternity records and university decisions.
At UC Davis, the SAE chapter was closed in 2012 for five years after serving alcohol to minors. At USC, the chapter was suspended for at least three years by the national organization for repeated rule breaking, including excessive alcohol violations. The large Tudor house on USC's Greek Row now is being used for other non-fraternity housing.
And, at Stanford University a few weeks ago, the local chapter's on-campus housing privileges were suspended for two years in response to complaints of sexual harassment of women.
In the worst case, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a freshman died in 2008 of alcohol poisoning resulting from hazing at the now-closed SAE chapter there; four members were sentenced to jail terms for their roles in the incident.
In response to such incidents, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been instituting new policies to shed its stereotype of heavy partying and sometimes dangerous hazing. One of the nation's largest collegiate fraternity chains, with about 15,000 current members at 239 U.S. campuses, it took what it called an historic step last year and eliminated traditional pledging procedures. During that initiation process still used at many other fraternities, critics say new recruits face potentially dangerous situations, becoming victims of pranks and hazing.
In addition, SAE officials recently have said they are national leaders in encouraging chapters to sign up as alcohol-free zones, even banning drinking at parties on the house premises although possibly allowing it at other venues. The chapters at Occidental College and UC Irvine are among 39 that have pledged to keep their houses free of alcohol.
Now, leaders of Southern California chapters say they hope the public does not connect them to the racist chanting by SAE members from the University of Oklahoma chapter that was captured on video. In the video, shot on a bus, two white men in tuxedos lead the song, including the N-word: "You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me. There will never be a ... SAE." Two Oklahoma members were expelled from the university last week and the chapter was shut down.
The Southern California chapters are making sure that their colleges and neighborhood communities know that they have denounced the racist chants. Fraternity leaders say they welcome all who embrace the group's creed of being "True Gentlemen."
"We know it's easy to lump people together at times like this. But people need to understand that one chapter does not reflect the inner workings of every chapter," said Kamal Andrawis, an engineering student who is president of the Cal Poly Pomona SAE chapter. "And every member here feels there is no place for this type of behavior in our fraternity."
Andrawis, who is from a Jordanian American family, and other Sigma Alpha Epsilon leaders around Southern California say that their memberships reflect the strong ethnic diversity of their campuses. In addition to social life, their chapters emphasize philanthropy, such as raising money for a network of children's hospitals, and the advantages of working together for good grades and career opportunities.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon was founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama and now has its headquarters in Evanston, Ill. Its leaders say they are trying reinforce its traditional credo of "The True Gentlemen," which calls for "an acute sense of propriety" and self control. Among the efforts is a public online posting of conduct violations dating back to 2010 to alert potential members and parents.
Charles Moran, the SAE regional alumni director for the Los Angeles area, said he is concerned about potential "blowback" against all fraternities after the Oklahoma furor.
But Moran, a volunteer who had been president of the Occidental chapter 12 years ago, said he hoped that the controversy starts fruitful discussions about race and gender on college campuses. Meanwhile, he said SAE chapters need to show their positive sides of fellowship, scholarship and philanthropy.
"We think that our deeds are what we are going to be judged on, not by the actions of 19 individuals [in Oklahoma] who made very poor decisions," he said. "That means the burden is on us."
National fraternity leaders last week issued a statement about the Oklahoma video, saying: "This is absolutely not who we are."